Sunday, May 16, 2010
I've just finished reading Emile Durkheim's "The Elementary Forms of the Religious". Durkheim--a pioneer in the field of sociology and anthropology--sets as his task in this book nothing less than the identification of the most basic (i.e. earliest, most fundamental) activity among civilizations that we can call "religious". His overall goal in this investigation is to identify how religious thinking and institutions arise in the first place and what aspects of religion are universal to all world religions. In what follows, I will try to explain the most striking evidence of Durkheim's thesis that "religion is inherently a social phenomenon" and its implications. That main piece of evidence is Durkheim's assertion that religion arises as a way to understand "collective effervescence", a phenomenon that occurs when individuals come together.
In order to understand what Durkheim means by this, we must summarize a portion of Durkheim's investigative process and findings. Durkheim spends most of his book exploring what he considers the most fundamental cult of the most primitive human civilization: the practice of totemism among the Australian aborigines. Durkheim describes totemism as the practice of a clan identifying itself with some object from the natural world (usually a plant or animal). In other words, a totem is a clan's flag. All societies seem to do this. We find symbols--often taken from the natural world--as stand ins for our community, nation, or group. Germany takes an eagle, the mormons take the beehive, and Japan takes the rising sun. Durkheim makes clear that what is important is not the real object itself, but the representation of the object. It is not the rabbit that is sacred, but the image of the rabbit. This is significant because what Durkheim argues is that the clan is in fact representing itself by means of the totem. When the clan reverences, worships, or in any way sets apart the totem as a sacred object, they are, in effect, simply reverencing the visual representation of their collective existence. The practices that spring up around the representation of the totem then become what we recognize as a "religion". Durkheim sees this process of taking outside objects as representative of oneself as a necessary means by which a community expresses and understands itself: "...collective sentiments can become conscious of themselves only by fixing themselves upon external objects..." (466)
Why do societies seek to represent and then revere themselves in this manner? This is where we approach Durkheim's fascinating notion of a "collective effervescence". People have wondered what it is exactly that gives rise to religion and the idea of an all-powerful being named God. Durkheim rejects the idea that the notion of "God" comes from feelings of fear, or weakness in the face of powerful natural forces. Rather, Durkheim sees the beginnings of the practice of totemism, which then develops into the notion of a spiritual being, as beginning with the experience of community. Durkheim states that "...collective life awakens religious thought on reaching a certain degree of intensity..." (469) This "religious thought" begins with the feeling of "reverence" for something outside of ourselves that seems to be all-powerful.
On some level, we all reverence society and recognize its claims upon us. Durkheim theorizes that this sense of respect for society comes from the physical power we feel when participating in any communal event. We seem to be lifted out of ourselves in the presence of large groups participating in some important communal act. Durkheim puts it so:
"There are occasions when this strengthening and vivifying action of society is especially apparent. In the midst of an assembly animated by a common passion, we become susceptible of acts and sentiments of which we are incapable when reduced to our own forces; and when the assembly is dissolved and when, finding ourselves alone again, we fall back to our ordinary level, we are then able to measure the height to which we have been raised above ourselves" (240)
This physical force emanating from community is what Durkheim terms "collective effervescence". We can perhaps best understand it by reflecting on the excitement we feel as we sing together in a church assembly, or experience the sensation of 30,000 individuals cheering for a school basketball team. There seems to be a force that exists in community.
The Aborigines--experiencing this phenomenon as they came together to celebrate a successful hunt or something of that sort--began the process of seeking to understand this force that seemed to alight upon their community. It eventually led to the totem. In a more general sense, it is not very hard to see the connection between God and society. God is to us--in basic form--"a being whom men think of as superior to themselves, and upon whom they feel that they depend" (237). Durkheim argues that God is (I've simplified this a little bit) the expression we use for the individual's relationship to society. Society appears to us as an invisible, yet all-powerful entity. Its can demand everything from us simply by being what it is: society. We all seem to perceive that the greatest end that exists is the good of society. Durkheim feels that this attitude seemingly innate in us arises from an immaterial power that comes with communal existence:
"We say that an object, whether individual or collective, inspires respect when the representation expressing it in the mind is gifted with such a force that it automatically causes or inhibits actions, without regard for any consideration relative to their useful or injurious effects" (237).
Thus, Durkheim's main thrust can be summed up in three words: "Society is God". By way of conclusion, what I find most applicative in this theory is what Durkheim concludes about the ultimate nature of religious claims about a spiritual realm and the ethical teachings attached to the religion. To be perfectly blunt, Durkheim saves religion from being simply interpreted as an illusion, but ultimately concludes that while arising from very real physical forces, the literal notions of a corporeal God and heaven cannot be accepted. In his words, "...the reality which religious thought expresses is society..." (480) Further, the ethical claims that religion makes on individuals can be understood as how a community expresses the "collective ideal" (470).